In the Mexican pastry shop Bombon, on 18th Street just east of Ashland, delicate sweets and extravagantly decorated cakes fill a curved, sleek display case. Brightly painted walls alternate with stretches of exposed brick, hung with photos of more pastry, photos of Mexican markets, and specialized kitchen utensils like a molinillo, the wooden dowel used to make the foam on top of Mexican hot chocolate. The elegant offerings and upscale decor might seem out of place on a stretch of 18th Street that's in need of a face-lift. But as owners Laura Cid Pfeiffer and Luis Perea explain, that's not really the case.
"In the Mexican culture, there's always enough money for happy occasions," Pfeiffer says. "A christening, a girl's quinceanera [15th birthday], a wedding--there's always a party. And in Mexico no celebration is complete without cakes and candies."
Both born and raised in Mexico City, Pfeiffer and Perea met a year and a half ago when Pfeiffer, 31, trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, was the pastry chef for Frontera Grill and Topolobampo and Perea, 39, a former law student and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, was Topolobampo's sous chef. "Both of us had dreamed about opening our own bakery," Perea says.
The dream became reality four months ago, when they were served a disappointing tres leches cake--so named for the mixture of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream it's usually soaked in--at the end of an otherwise excellent meal at Lalo's on Clybourn. "The chiles rellenos were great, but the dessert was of lesser quality," Pfeiffer recalls. "We knew we could do better. So we talked to the owner, and he asked us to make some sample desserts. He liked what we did, and since he owns 12 restaurants, his order was enough to get us going."
They started baking in a production kitchen that's a ten-minute drive from where Bombon now stands, and their client list grew to include Marshall Field's and the Francesca's in Forest Park. Meanwhile, they found the storefront in Pilsen. "With the Spanish-speaking community as a whole becoming more affluent, we felt it was a good opportunity," says Perea. They spent long days and endless gallons of paint and wood stain bringing the storefront to its current condition.
Their diverse product line includes everything from frosted gingerbread cookies to puff pastry tarts to cakes made with coconut meringue and Mexican chocolate. Their seductive version of tres leches is done with Kahlua and eggnog. And if the buttery pastries and rich icings seem more European than Mexican, it's due less to Pfeiffer's Cordon Bleu training than to the French-supported monarchy that ruled Mexico from 1864-1867, headed by the Austrian archduke Maximillian. The annual Cinco de Mayo celebration commemorates his defeat, but while the French are long gone, their culinary influence lingers.
Custom-designed wedding cakes are one of the pair's specialties. Among the elaborate mock-ups on display at Bombon is a replica of the aquatic-themed cake made for the marriage of two dolphin trainers at the Shedd Aquarium and decorated with edible starfish, shells, and sea plants. Also memorable was a cake ordered for a long-delayed wedding celebration, given by the husband as a surprise to his wife. "He's an architect, and the cake was an elaborate three-tiered extravaganza, complete with Roman and Greek columns," Pfeiffer says. "It was really beautiful."
The cakes are baked--and most of the sugar-based decorations created--the day before the wedding. Final assembly is typically done after the cake is delivered. But the interaction with the clients is Pfeiffer's favorite part. "I love the creative process," she says. "Shopping for the flowers, doing the decorations....When you do a wedding cake--or any other special-occasion cake--you're doing something important and unique, something that people will remember for the rest of their lives."
Bombon is at 1508 W. 18th, 312-733-7788.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.